not in our stars, but in ourselves
44/52: A movie with a nice soundtrack
Kent Jones begins his Criterion Collection essay about The Royal Tenenbaums with some lofty claims:
Simply stated, Wes Anderson is the most original presence in American film comedy since Preston Sturges. He is as boundlessly confident as Sturges was in his heyday, and he has a similarly keen ear for gaudy dialogue; a gift for surprise and for topping one joke with a bigger one; a knack for rooting out archetypes hitherto untouched in movies; and a penchant for making films that feel like pageants, composed of a democratically diverse cross section of humanity.
Jones is quick to point out that they’re very different filmmakers, with very different aims, but it’s still a decent analogy. I especially think so because, just as I love The Lady Eve but find myself tired by Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story, I’m either delighted by Anderson or galled. Sorry to tell you, but I experience the latter sensation with Tenenbaums. I enjoy Rushmore, I enjoy Fantastic Mr. Fox, I enjoy The Grand Budapest Hotel; but not Tenenbaums. There’s nothing wrong with the film. It’s just not to my taste.
In a story at least partially inspired by J.D. Salinger’s work, we’re introduced to the upper-class Tenenbaums. The patriarch, Royal (Gene Hackman), would make a better cool uncle than he does a father; after he and his wife, Etheline (Anjelica Huston), have been together for ten years, they separate. She raises the three children herself, and takes great pride in their prodigious intelligence and accomplishments. Once the kids grow up, however, their youthful brilliance dulls itself into just enough self-awareness to be miserable. Chas (Ben Stiller) began his own business when he was 12 or so, sued his father when he was 14 – and now practices emergency drills with his sons, Ari and Uzi, because he’s terrified of a cruel and unpredictable universe in the wake of his wife’s death in a plane crash. Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), who’s adopted, ran away from home several times when she was young, wrote her first play when she was in high school, and now endures a loveless (on her part) marriage with neurologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray), whom she avoids by locking herself in the bathroom for six hours a day. Richie (Luke Wilson) was a child tennis prodigy, and enjoyed huge success as an adult – but retired at age 26 following a disastrous game on the day after Margot’s wedding to Raleigh. Richie, it turns out, is in love with his adopted sister. There’s really not much else in terms of plot: Royal fakes stomach cancer so he can spend more time with his family; Margot has an affair with a mediocre novelist, Eli Cash (Owen Wilson), one of many extramarital divertissements; Etheline finds love again with her patient and steady accountant, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover); but the film is less about what happens than who these characters are.
That’s where I have a problem. These characters are infinitely precious, and presented with such twee smugness that I can’t help wanting to hock a loogie at each of them. I remember hearing similar accusations lobbed against Grand Budapest, and I wondered where on earth they got the idea that it was all style and no substance. I will go to bat for M. Gustave and his sustained illusion of that vanished world, of civility and grace and elegance and order – all while the real world was crashing down around him on all sides – any day of the week. I don’t see anything or anyone worth arguing for or about in the Tenenbaums’ insular little brownstone.
It’s not all bad. I don’t mean to imply any such thing. The soundtrack, as is often the case in an Anderson film, is wonderful (although I did find the use of Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” during Richie’s suicide attempt to be a bit darker and more emotional than anything or anyone warranted – but hey, it’s a great song). Anderson’s usual director of photography, Robert Yeoman, provides his usual symmetry and exquisite framing to each shot. The cast is wonderful, with Anderson using the actors’ personality and star quality to great effect in each role. I even thought Paltrow was good, probably because she’s playing someone who wishes she were Sylvia Plath, just as Paltrow seems to wish she were some combination of Madonna, Martha Stewart, Meryl Streep, and more. (No fan of Goop am I, you might have guessed.) In short: there’s really nothing wrong with The Royal Tenenbaums.
And yet: I don’t like it. What gives?
It may be the Salinger influence. Grand Budapest is inspired by the work of Stefan Zweig, a writer I enjoy for his melancholy sense of the world going to hell in an ornate hand basket. Fox is an adaptation of a Roald Dahl story. Rushmore, too, was partially inspired by Dahl, in some slightly more grown-up way. (Very slightly.) I love Roald Dahl, because even when he’s deeply affecting, he’s never cloying or sentimental – never in any of the things I’ve read, anyway. Zweig can be slightly sentimental, but it’s clear he believes the warning in the title of one of his own books: Beware of Pity. Salinger is sentimentalism parading as exceptionalism, wounded masculine pride and deadly dull resentment. I don’t know about you, but I can and do apply the following Vladimir Nabokov passage to Salinger:
We must distinguish between “sentimental” and “sensitive”. A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person. Sentimental Rousseau, who could weep over a progressive idea, distributed his many natural children through various poorhouses and workhouses and never gave a hoot for them. A sentimental old maid may pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician may remember Mother’s Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival. Stalin loved babies. Lenin sobbed at the opera, especially at the Traviata.
(Of course, Nabokov is an infinitely superior writer to Salinger, but that’s neither here nor there.) I think Anderson can, when he’s working from the right source material or inspiration, be terrifically sensitive. When he (and his writing partner in this case and Rushmore, Owen Wilson) draws instead from more fetid waters – well, let’s just say that I’m not a fan.
This is all just my personal taste, however. I don’t begrudge anyone their enjoyment of the Tenenbaum clan’s various foibles and familial clashes. You all can keep them. Leave me in Zubrowka.